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The Psychology of Lowering the Drinking Age

By Nick Hallal, Niki Klodowska, Alex Jeong, VI Form 

The Psychology of Lowering the Drinking Age

While researching the effects of alcohol on the brain, our group plans to concentrate on the effects of alcohol on the adolescent brain. We plan to research the neurological effects it has on the adolescent brain, the short and long term effects of alcohol consumption, and the psychosocial aspect of underage drinking. Through our hypothesis, we seek to understand why the legal drinking age is still set at 21 years of age instead of 18 years. We hope to understand why there is such a large problem with underage drinking, and we will determine if our hypothesis that lowering the drinking age would help with the problem.

Alcohol is a liquid that is formed when yeast ferments the sugar in grains, fruits, and vegetables [3]. It is classified as a depressant as it slows down, or depresses the central nervous system by suppressing neurotransmitters [4]. Depressants are usually used to help with sleep disorders or reduce anxiety because they produce a calming effect [1]. Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream and then metabolized in the liver [2]. The enzymes in the liver metabolizes alcohol; however, the liver can only “metabolize a small amount of alcohol at a time” which leaves the alcohol that is not yet metabolized to “circulate through the body” [2]. Alcohol in the bloodstream is measured in “milligrams of alcohol in millimeter in your bloodstream” and is referred to as BAC or “Blood Alcohol Content” [4].

During adolescence, the brain undergoes a period of rapid development. During this time, “Higher-order association areas appear to develop only after lower-order sensorimotor regions fully mature” meaning areas such as the frontal lobe, which is in charge of impulse control, memory, and judgement, are “the final areas of the brain to complete development” [5]. The hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory, is particularly “susceptible to the effects of alcohol” with “hippocampal volumes… significantly smaller (approximately 10%)” in those who had alcohol-use disorder in comparison to those without [8]. Heavy underage drinkers are also “susceptible to neurodegeneration, impairments in functional brain activity, and the appearance of neurocognitive deficits” [8].

Depending on how much alcohol is consumed and the physical condition of an individual, some short term effects of alcohol include “slurred speech, drowsiness, vomiting, diarrhea, upset stomach, headaches, breathing problems, distorted vision and hearing, impaired judgment, decreased perception and coordination, unconsciousness, anemia, coma, and blackouts [11]. According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, alcohol causes some effects that are positive for anxiety in dosage. However, as the dosage increases, the effects become more powerful and detrimental, as death is the worst possible outcome. Most of these negative short term effects seem to be due to actions such as binge drinking and irresponsible drinking habits.

Similarly, long term effects of alcohol consumption, as provided by The Foundation of a Drug-Free World, are unintentional and intentional injuries — car accident, falls, drowning, sexual assault, and domestic violence — and biological damages involving the nervous and organ systems [11]. These biological damages can range from high blood pressure, heart-related diseases, liver damage, brain damage, gastritis, and cancer in the mouth and throat. Even with these scary consequences, people aged between twelve to twenty years old still drink 11% of all alcohol consumed by the United States. Thirty-three percent of American youth population have consumed some amount of alcohol, 18% have participated in binge-drinking, 8% have driven after drinking alcohol, and 20% have ridden with a driver who had been drinking alcohol [13].

After learning about the effects of what alcohol can do from a young age, why do kids still drink? Unfortunately, an underaged person’s brain continuously convinces itself that “I want to drink.” In various situations, the mind takes over the morally correct option, and results in a bad decision. When drinking becomes an option, kids’ brains turn on like a light bulb. Everyone wants to be involved. Kids drink for fun and from pressure, not because they enjoy the taste of alcohol. They think it is “cool” or “the popular thing to do.” Nobody wants to be the “loser,” which in these cases means obeying the law. This is where the psychology behind drinking come in. The mind signals that it doesn’t want to be left out or be a “loser.” When kids go on to college, they feel as though they are free of all parent rules and restrictions. A large part of students’ college experiences and college choices can be determined by the school’s party scene. Colleges do not usually enforce legal drinking rules, even for students under 21, because it is private property. Colleges do not have a full police force around campus, and the college campus police are there as safety measures rather than law-enforcers. When kids are still in high school, they feel that doing things that are not allowed is cool. It is the act of doing something prohibited and feeling like you are “living large” that makes the mind so attracted to these situations.

On the other hand, college-aged students are more aggressive. When kids are 18 and older, they tend to feel that they can drink more because they are more mature. According to Ruth Engs’ “Why the Drinking Age Should Be Lowered,” “Drinking by the youth is seen as an enticing ‘forbidden fruit,’ a ‘badge of rebellion against authority’ and a symbol of ‘adulthood.’” When the mind understands this, it wants to experience this feeling again and again. Because the mind starts to become addicted to these experiences, the drinking age should be lowered to give kids more time to evolve with alcohol. College also makes drinking dangerous because of the privacy, “…the fact that women under 21 must retreat to dorm rooms and frat houses to drink puts them all in a vulnerable situation” (Tucker). For this reason, the legal drinking age if 18 or 16 in many other countries.

European countries, for example, have some of the lowest death by alcohol percentages across the world. “The death rate by alcohol per 100,000 people in America is 1.6, making it 49th in the world. The death rate by alcohol per 100,000 people in Italy is 0.2, making it 163rd in the world” [9]. What isn’t quoted here is the difference in age. In Italy, the legal drinking age is 16 — five years younger than it is in the United States. Rogerson, an Italian native, claims that parents can control their kids’ drinking habits at the beginning years of legal use and therefore they can practice safer habits in the future. When the kids learn to be responsible at a younger age, they become less dangerous by not having the strong impulse to drink heavily when they can. Rogerson also raises the point about how when he was 16 (able to buy alcohol and drink legally), his parents still had control over him. Through this, he learned responsibility. His parents could tell him when he could go out, how often he could go out, how much he could drink and so on without him ever complaining about it. This all makes sense, and because of this, the United States should consider changing the legal drinking age back to 18 years old.

Alcohol is a depressant that could possibly have in negative effects on youth ranging from decreased perception to death. However, this negativity comes only under actions like binge drinking and irresponsible drinking. These bad drinking habits come from adolescents’ psychological response to drinking, and impulsive, rare drinking opportunities. By rethinking the drinking age in the United States, teenagers are taught to drink responsibly from young age, and they do not feel the pressure or rush of rebelling against authority to drink underage. In conclusion, lowering the drinking may help the current problems of underaged drinking, since lower drinking ages in other countries seems to result in lower statistics in the unfortunate events involving alcohol.  


[1] About Alcohol. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from https://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/studentlife/health/promotion/goto/resources/drugs/alcohol.html

[2] Alcohol and Public Health. (2017, June 08). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm

[3] Dowshen, S. (Ed.). (2016, September). Alcohol. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/alcohol.html

[4] Drug Classifications. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from https://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/studentlife/health/promotion/goto/resources/drugs/alcohol.html

[5] Squeglia, L. M., Acobus, J., & Tapert, S. F. (2010). The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain Development. The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain Development. doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f

[6] What is alcohol? (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from https://www.alcohol.org.nz/alcohol-its-effects/about-alcohol/what-is-alcohol

[7] Zakhari, S. (2006). Overview: how is alcohol metabolized by the body?. Alcohol Research & Health, 29(4), 245-255.

[8] Zeigler, D. W., Wang, C. C., Yoast, R. A., Dickinson, B. D., McCaffree, M. A., Robinowitz, C. B., & Sterling, M. L. (2005). The neurocognitive effects of alcohol on adolescents and college students. The neurocognitive effects of alcohol on adolescents and college students, 40(1), 23-32. doi:10.1186/isrctn06195297

[9] Rogerson, K. (2014, November 17). Viewpoint: Why America should lower the legal drinking age. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from USA Today: College website: http://college.usatoday.com/2014/11/17/viewpoint-why-america-should-lower-the-legal-drinking-age/

[10] Engs, Ruth C. “Why the Drinking Age Should Be Lowered: An Opinion Based upon Research.” Why Drinking Age Should Be Lowered: Dr. Ruth Engs, www.indiana.edu/~engs/articles/cqoped.html.

[11] Watch Truth About Drugs Documentary Video & Learn About Substance Addiction. Get The Facts About Painkillers, Marijuana, Cocaine, Meth & Other Illegal Drugs. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/alcohol/short-term-long-term-effects.html

[12] Designed by Black Crow Studio – http://www.blackcrowstudio.com; built by LakeWebWorks – http://www.lakewebworks.com. (n.d.). Short and Long Term Effects. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from http://www2.courtinfo.ca.gov/stopteendui/teens/resources/substances/alcohol/short-and-long-term-effects.cfm

[13] Fact Sheets – Underage Drinking. (2016, October 20). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm

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